Cafe Reviews


Minga's, 4323 West Cactus, Phoenix, 978-5167. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Deep-thinking book reviewers don't delve into the latest Harlequin romance to keep up with fiction's cutting edge. Music critics don't analyze the latest Paula Abdul CD to get insights into harmonic relationships. And students of cinema don't dissect Lethal Weapon 3 to make a point about film theory.

Why should they? The heaving bosoms, pounding beat and endless violence aim no higher than satisfying the desire of the masses for comfortable, nonmenacing diversion.

Kind of like gringo Sonoran-style Mexican food. Because this sort of fare--chimis, fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, tamales--doesn't try to soar, it runs few risks. It has all the shadings of a Stephen King novel, a Hammer rap or a Charles Bronson performance. But it's just as crowd-pleasing. We checked out a couple of the Valley's busier spots to see why.

Minga's, a well-known west-side hot spot, has tackled head-on the greatest source of popular resistance to Mexican food: It's fattening.

The restaurant has come up with a special "Ultra-Lite" menu to complement its regular choices. It offers all the usual Sonoran suspects, but no lard, pork or beef. Instead there are veggies, fish and canola oil. We four weight-conscious adults doubtfully took the bait. By dinner's end, we were hooked.

Minga's is a dimly lighted place with a candle on the table. Wood paneling and latticework are background and support for Aztec pottery figures, ristras, red-chile Christmas lights and a trio of bean pots over a doorway. Beer signs, posters and a red neon "Salsa" sign compete for your visual attention, while piped-in mariachi music grabs your ears. Our blonde waitress sported a black, ruffled "Mexican" outfit.

An excellent chunky, mild salsa and tricolored chips quickly appeared, along with serviceable, half-price, Monday night margaritas. The sipping and dipping didn't give any hint of the main courses to follow. But they packed enough calories to send us to the Ultra-Lite listings on the menu. From the 13 choices, I commandeered the most expensive, the $12.95 halibut fajitas. (The other dishes run about six or seven dollars.) The enormous black skillet arrived sizzling hot, and stayed that way after the waitress placed it on a metal rack over a candle. On a deep bed of Mexican rice rested crunchy strips of carrot, mild green and red pepper, saut‚ed onions, lengths of squash and at least a half-pound of juicy hunks of halibut. This was all cunningly heaped and balanced, and impossible to eat without sending veggies flying onto the table, over the chips and into my friend's glass of water. I made two bursting tortillas and still had enough for a healthy doggy bag. I'd come back here just for the halibut. And I barely touched the two side dishes, a platter of cheese-slathered whole beans (not the dreadful mush you often get), and a tasty, offbeat dish of calabacitas--diced zucchini, flecked with onions, tomato and corn with more melted cheese. Good as my food was, my colleagues showed no interest in abandoning their own to help me. Minga's veggie-shrimp chimichanga is not deep-fried, but crisped in the oven. By my reckoning, this process saves about a jillion and a half calories. It's crammed full of carrots, peppers, onions and squash, which appear to be the vegetables of choice here. It was also surprisingly loaded with shrimp--not those awful, tiny creatures that turn up in everything from shrimp salad to bad shrimp cocktails, but real, briny, medium-size shrimp that you can't swallow in one bite.

The chimi, too, came with beans and a bowl of the diced zucchini. Minga's Ultra-Lites may have fewer calories, but I was starting to suspect that the huge portions might be a compensating mechanism, like drinking a couple more "lite" beers.

Two of us went the combination route. Tacos don't sound too promising under the best of circumstances, and a veggie taco seems unlikely to aspire beyond palatable. But the taco of saut‚ed vegetables had us shaking our heads in disbelief. It's amazing what fresh vegetables, properly seasoned and cooked, can taste like.

In fact, wherever the vegetables showed up--in the enchilada, tamale, taco, chimi or fajitas--they really added zip. Only the bean tostada, an ordinary bean-and-shredded-lettuce mediocrity, sharply recalled us to the fact that we were chowing down gringo cuisine. Eating Mexican health food didn't dampen our curiosity about desserts, especially after the waitress's boast that Minga makes them herself. She whips up a passable skim-milk flan, topped with Lite Cool Whip. Unfortunately, it reminds you why you like thick, custardy, whole-milk flan in the first place. But the rice pudding doesn't suffer at all from its skim-milk origin. Firm rice and lots of cinnamon and raisins had us dipping in four spoons at once. However, my real thought was: Damn the calories, full spoon ahead. So I tried manzana delight, a deep-fried cherry burro sprinkled with cinnamon and topped with ice cream. It was clearly made to order, fresh and steaming with sweetened whole cherries. The chocolate cake, rich, moist and huge, also won our admiration.

As we sipped our coffee, my Midwestern friend, no particular fan of Mexican food, confessed he actually hoped for a return visit. "I really liked it," he said almost apologetically, with a shrug. Me, too. Valle Luna, 16048 North Cave Creek Road, Phoenix, 867-9100. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Whenever I've driven past Valle Luna on Cave Creek Road (there's one on West Bell Road, too), the parking lot has been jammed. In my old neighborhood, that kind of traffic usually meant something besides great food: a high-stakes poker game in the back room.

But once inside, I didn't hear a hint of rustling cards or tinkling chips. As Sherlock Holmes always said, once you eliminate the impossible, you're left with the solution, no matter how improbable. I could only conclude that everyone here came to be fed.

Valle Luna is gringo cuisine with a vengeance, with suitably accompanying decor. The place looks like someone backed up a U-Haul to a tourist shop in Nogales.

There are two big rooms, each divided into alcoves. Our nonsmoking room was airy and light, with a large rock fountain splashing in the corner. Pottery sconces covered light bulbs behind our maroon booths. The walls were hung with enough serapes and embroidered sombreros to clothe half the clientele. Valle Luna has the look of a cantina right out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I wouldn't have been surprised to hear the hostess shout out, "Fred C. Dobbs, table for three."

If you've got five extra bucks, you can get a first-class frozen margarita, made with Cuervo Gold and Grand Marnier. Along with decent chips and salsa, it will possibly incline you to play along with a menu that has the predictability of a July weather forecast.

Landing my finger at random on the menu, I picked the chile relleno, taco and enchilada combo. It comes with a nifty alb¢ndigas soup, thick with vegetables and a flavorful meatball.

The relleno and enchilada were right out of the Gringo Central Kitchen, although the taco offered a tasty, shredded-beef filling. The bland beans were short on looks and flavor, but the short-grain rice had a crunchy zest. Still, you can probably get a combo plate like this in your neighborhood.

My friend Barb had the chimichanga plate, a huge one stuffed with chicken. Nothing special. You can probably get one like it in your neighborhood, too.

The best dish we sampled was carnitas picante, what Valle Luna calls "our Sonoran answer to fajitas." For $8.75, you get a platter full of beef, pork and chicken, surrounded by beans, cheese, guacamole, sour cream, picante sauce and shredded lettuce. The meats were wonderful, and smothered in fried onions. It's a nice dish. Maybe you can find one like it in your neighborhood.

Because of the huge portions and the absence of kids, we took our time eating. But every time we paused to chat instead of chew, the buspersons swooped in to reach for our plates. We had to swat them away three or four times before the message got through. When we'd finally finished, we summoned the cowed busperson with a regal nod of the head. Who says American workers can't be trained? The desserts here didn't measure up to Minga's. The flan was certainly large enough, but rubbery and insufficiently sweet. The sopaipillas came six to an order, but they were too bready. And why those awful packets of honey that look like they were hijacked from Denny's? Buy some good squeeze-bottle honey, charge a quarter more and give diners a thrill.

Barb, who has lived on almost every continent except Antarctica and is new to Phoenix, had never encountered fried ice cream before. The version here provided no reason for her to make a run for the border. Valle Luna never pretends to be more than it is: a local hangout with fair prices, generous portions and familiar Mexican food that runs a narrow gamut from okay to pretty good. If your neighborhood Mexican joint doesn't reach this standard, head up to Moon Valley. And you won't have to show no stinkin' badges.


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Howard Seftel